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Islanders risk wasting incredible offensive season if they can't improve defensively

The Islanders' offense is one of the league's most fearsome, but that hasn't mattered much when the defensive play has seen New York unable to keep pucks out of their net.

The New York Islanders’ attack is to be feared. That’s one thing the league has come to learn about this group as we reach the midpoint of the campaign. 

Look at the NHL’s scoring race alone, where Josh Bailey, John Tavares and Anders Lee are all within the top 20 point-getters in the circuit, and it paints a picture of an offense that has some high-powered weapons. Look then at the secondary scorers the Islanders boast, rookie Mat Barzal and defenseman Nick Leddy among them, and it’s evident New York has even more firepower to augment their top-scoring talent. And consider the Islanders’ standing when it comes to per-game production. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Vegas Golden Knights have a higher goals per game rate than New York, their respective 3.63 goals and 3.44 goals only marginally better than the Isles’ 3.39 mark.

So, given the offensively gifted company New York has kept through half a campaign, what with Tampa Bay tops in the league and Vegas leading the Western Conference, the expectation would be that the Islanders have followed suit with a record heavily tilted in their favor and a shot at finishing with one of the top seeds in not just the Metropolitan Division, but the entire Eastern Conference. But perception and reality aren’t always one and the same, and instead of battling for a top seed in the league’s toughest division, the Islanders are instead fighting to even hold down a wild-card spot.

In a sense, Thursday night’s loss to the Philadelphia Flyers — New York’s fourth in a row and seventh in 10 games — was a microcosm of how this season has at times gone for the Islanders. On the attack, the Islanders may not have been exceptional, but four goals on 31 shots is a decent night at the office. But defensively, New York was a mess at times, surrendering six goals on 32 shots against. And that has been the case far too often. Case in point: the loss to the Flyers marked the eighth time this season the Islanders have scored three or more goals in a loss. That’s tied for the most such instances in the league. When New York has scored four-plus goals, they’ve lost five times. That’s the second-most in the league. And the Islanders are also one of only eight teams to score five or more goals in a game this season yet skate away with a loss. If that doesn’t scream defensive breakdowns, we’re not sure what does.

The issues in New York are twofold, too, with the Islanders’ lack of anything that even closely resembles steady goaltending the most apparent shortcoming. While it’s been touched on before around these parts, the tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss has been dreadful in New York, to the point where the duo individually rank among the worst in the league. Both goaltenders have appeared in at least 20 games, making them two of the 31 netminders to do so this season, and their numbers across those outings are unsightly. Starting with Halak, the veteran goaltender has turned in a meager .904 save percentage and 3.19 goals-against average, marks which rank 27th and 30th among the group of 20-game keepers. But Greiss’ numbers have somehow been worse. He has an ugly .881 SP and bloated 3.89 GAA across his 20 games. Both figures are the worst among the aforementioned group of goaltenders.

The saving grace for the Islanders’ crease — or at least the glimmer of hope New York had — was that while Greiss’ play was unreliable at all strengths, Halak had at least shown some promise at five-a-side. In mid-December, Halak had a .937 SP at 5-on-5, which ranked second-best among starting netminders at the time. Since then, though, Halak’s 5-on-5 SP has dipped to .926 and he’s fallen into the middle of the pack among goaltenders to play at least 1,000 minutes. And while, according to Corsica, he’s still performing better than his expected SP, Halak’s slowly declining performance has left the Islanders without the goaltending they’ve needed to hold down a wild-card spot.

In the interest of fairness, however, the blame for the Islanders drop down the standings and out of a playoff position despite their brilliant offense can’t be placed solely on the shoulders of Halak and Greiss. That’s particularly the case with the defensive play lacking over the past month. While New York’s underlying numbers weren’t exactly brilliant entering the past month, they still stood only slightly outside the top two-thirds of the league in most categories. Across the past month, though, the Islanders’ standing in the league has notably declined. Since Dec. 5, New York ranks 28th in Corsi for percentage (44.6), 29th in shots for percentage (44.9), 30th in scoring chances for percentage (42.7) and 28th in high-danger chances for percentage (42.9) at 5-on-5 when adjusted for score and venue. Such numbers point to a team that’s outrunning some significant defensive lapses, and it’d be tough for any goaltender to truly flourish in such an environment.

And this all leaves the Islanders with two major problems to solve if they don’t want to waste a dream season from three of their top offensive talents. The first concern should be finding a goaltender, any goaltender, who can take the starting job and post numbers better than that of Halak and Greiss. Truth be told, it’s an issue the Islanders need to solve regardless of the play of either netminder this season, especially with no firm timetable on when Ilya Sorokin will be ready to truly become an NHL starter. But beyond landing a goaltender, New York must find a way to bulk up their blueline and tighten up in their own end. The injuries to Johnny Boychuk and Calvin de Haan have been part of the problem defensively, no doubt, but the Islanders could most certainly use another reliable rearguard on the back end who can give Leddy a hand.

Until those issues are addressed, though, New York runs the risk of battling for nothing more than a wild-card spot for the remainder of the campaign and potentially fumbling away a season when their offense is nearing on unstoppable.

(All advanced statistics via Natural Stat Trick, unless otherwise noted)

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